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Give Me the Bad News First | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Give Me the Bad News First

My new Think Again column is called “‘Class Warfare’ Revisited” and it’s here.

This might interest some people: Mel Scult and Susie Heschel discussing “Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai M.Kaplan : Cross Sections and Intersections” at the Jewish Theological Seminary last week. Note, by the way, that Cornel West is sitting in the front row and JTS chair Arnie Eisen notes that Cornel is teaching a course on Heschel and writing a book on him right now. An odd choice for an alleged anti-Semite. Also note that Susie Heschel remarks of Barack Obama’s expressed admiration for her father. Again, weird for a guy who hates both Jews and Israel, huh?

But speaking about Jews, yet again, let us note that the BDS lecture at Brooklyn College reflects even worse on the BDS movement than merely the cynicism of its proponents. Note the letter Brooklyn College President Karen Gould wrote below with regard to the forcible rejection of Jewish students from the hallway:

“Dear students, faculty, and staff,

Last Friday evening, I received a report (see attached) from the CUNY Office of Legal Affairs. It summarizes this administration's handling of a number of aspects of the event held in the Student Center on February 7. The report is the result of a thorough, independent inquiry, which I requested upon learning that four students were removed from the event under questionable circumstances. According to one of the report's conclusions, "it is clear that there was no justification for the removal of the four students."

I am deeply troubled that these students were not permitted to remain at the event, since, as it turns out, they were not being disruptive. On behalf of the entire Brooklyn College community and members of the administration, I want to apologize for the serious mishandling of this matter. I have already issued a personal apology to the four students. Moreover, I pledge to take appropriate steps to ensure that similar situations do not occur in the future…..”

Alter-reviews:
More Jews:  I saw “Assembled Parties” last weekend. It’s the new play by Richard Greenberg produced by the Manhattan Theater Club and it gets a rave from the Times’ theater critic, Ben Brantley, which I second enthusiastically. The dialogue of Greenberg’s about-to-close “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was weirdly stilted, given how great much of his past work has proven. AP might be his most sparkling dialogue. Opening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, it features the wonderful--almost luminous--Jessica Hecht  who is trying to hold it together in a mere 14 rooms above Central Park West and throwing Jewish Christmas dinners in which various truths about life  and hidden feelings and stuff are revealed.   It’s a real play, but with a wink.  For instance, one of the nice Jewish boys says to his parents on the phone: ““You would love the apartment, mom — it’s like the sets of those plays you love. With the ‘breezy dialogue.’ They sort of talk that way and everybody’s unbelievably nice and, like, gracious and happy. It’s like you go to New York and you look for New York, but it isn’t there? But it’s here.”

Anyway, it’s about Jews, and families and love and loss, and most of all, being entertained in a Broadway theater without having your intelligence insulted or your feelings manipulated. I thought the last two words of the play were a mistake. Beyond that, it was nearly flawless. It’s directed by Lynne Meadow and in addiction to the marvelous Ms. Hecht, Judith Light is also a marvel to watch. The men are not bad, but they really can’t compete. Go see it.

I was looking over a couple of coffee table books that were decidedly out of the ordinary this week. Harry N. Abrams has published Revisionist Art, Bob Dylan offers up imagined silkscreened covers of popular magazines from the last half century. Some are so weird that they defy description. In the accompanying text, Luc Sante writes that they appear to us “from a world just slightly removed from ours—a world a bit more honest about its corruption, its chronic horniness, its sweat, its body odor.” The book also features a history of Revisionist Art, from cave drawings, to Gutenberg, to Duchamp, Picasso, and Warhol by art critic B. Clavery and commentaries on the work with discussions of Cameron Chambers, whose mustache became an icon in the gay underworld, and Gemma Burton, a San Francisco trial attorney who “used all of her assets in the courtroom.” Also out recently from It Books is The Best of Punk Magazine, which for most people, will be the only Punk Magazine they ever see. It’s pretty clever in spots and if you are nostalgic for punk, well, then where else would you go? Me, I’m not nostalgic for punk at all. Still I found it interesting and funny. It’s got photos, essays, interviews, and the occasional handwritten contribution from the likes of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Lester Bangs, Legs McNeil, Lenny Kaye. Plus it’s only thirty bucks. (Did I mention that the Dylan book was $100?)

On the DVD front, my friends at Acorn have just released the U.S. debut of The Syndicate, which they claim is an addictive BBC drama following the fortunes and misfortunes of five supermarket co-workers who win the lottery and is about to be ripped off by ABC is currently making a US version. It might be great, we’ll see, but more dependable is the  The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Complete Collection, which inspired the start of the PBS Mystery! after its success on Masterpiece Theatre. It’s six discs of Brits being clever and cute and solving crimes in the 1920s and if this is your sort of thing, it’s a bargain. 

Did someone say “Nascar Geniuses?”

Today’s List:
Things I hate most about academics:
1) The “Reply All” addiction. 

Now here’s Reed:

Just a reminder, you can read more from me elsewhere on The Nation about the increasingly apocalyptic nature of mainstream conservatism, “The Doomsday Prepper Caucus,” and—last week’s cover story in the magazine—my long essay, “GOP-Fox Circus Act,” on the not so rosy future of the right-wing’s favorite cable news network.

Give Me the Bad News First
by Reed Richardson

Like many clichés, “no news is good news” has stuck around all these years because there’s a kernel of eternal truth to it. In some walks of life, absence of evidence really can become it’s own powerful kind of proof. But for those who work in actual newsgathering, the adage’s converse is of far more professional importance. Though positive, uplifting stories with peaceful, satisfying outcomes might seem like a successful recipe for journalism—after all, it’s something the public always claims to want more of—the reality is news of the worthy usually isn’t all that newsworthy. Even worse, it’s downright boring. And if you want to see this dynamic in action, look no further than that paragon of insightful press criticism, “The Simpsons,” which ably demonstrated that “Playtime is Fun” is a much less compelling headline and interesting story than something like “Extra Extra! Todd Smells.”

We might not like to admit it and we often seem to forget it, in other words, but it’s instructive for the media to occasionally remind itself that it is in the bad news business. Without it, there would be no need for journalism and certainly no need for journalism awards. Not coincidentally, high-fives were shared and champagne was popped in newsrooms across the country this past Monday after the announcement of the 2013 Pulitzer Prizes. Easily overlooked amidst these celebrations, however, was the punishingly grim subject matter the involved. Whether it was government corruption, mass murder, natural disasters, corporate malfeasance, or civil war, print journalism’s most prestigious award served up a smorgasbord of great reporting about bad news, just as it does every year. And almost fittingly, at the very moment a few select members of the press were learning of their good fortune, a whole lot more bad news suddenly needed reporting in Boston, where a horrific, chaotic story was being vividly captured in photos that will likely be considered for next year’s Pulitzer Prize.

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The attack at the Boston Marathon was far from the only bad news, though. On Capitol Hill, Congress kept its streak of disappointing performances intact by quietly passing a bill that shamelessly rolls back self-imposed restrictions on Congressional insider trading, which our president then gutlessly signed. On Wednesday, a minority of NRA-beholden Senators cravenly filibustered an already watered-down gun control amendment thatnearly nine out of 10 Americans support. Later on Wednesday, a massive explosion at a fertilizer factory in Texas killed more than a dozen people and wounded hundreds more, upping the bad news ante even further. And we’re not even to Friday yet, when yet another Simpson-Bowles budget plan will arrive and no doubt suggest we punish millions of the sick and elderly in order to satisfy some misguided academic research the debt that was just proven to riddled with errors. All in all, this has been perhaps the biggest week of bad news in recent memory.

But none of these events during the past week, however tragic or frustrating, are deserving of pushback as much as this ridiculously awful essay in the Guardian. Entitled “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier,” one Rolf Dobelli spends more than 1,400 words throwing together a bunch of sloppy analogies, personal anecdotes, and broad generalizations in a brief against the societal role of the news. Mind you, this is no “everything in moderation”-type call to disconnect from your Twitter feed more often, or a warning against getting sucked into the mindless tit-for-tat talking-head battles on cable news. No, what Dobelli is doing is trafficking in full-on news hating, and his only solution: “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.”

Setting aside the head-scratching logic of a journalistic enterprise giving someone, anyone a platform to advocate for completely unplugging from the very thing that it produces, Dobelli’s rant is poisonous to the press and our society at large for other reasons. “News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence,” he points out, in something less than a shocking revelation. Doubling down on this bid for public apathy, he huffs “We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press,” employing the same patronizing attitude long used to by the powerful to keep the powerless oppressed, uninformed, and disenfranchised. We delicate flowers just can’t be trusted to consume the news without being “mislead” or “recognis[ing] what’s relevant,” so why bother are pretty little heads with it?

Dobelli’s not above hooking a total red herring to make his case either: “If more information leads to higher economic success, we'd expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That's not the case.” As if news production and consumption were part of some strictly financial transaction that provides a “competitive advantage,” instead of the informational give and take that marks a shared community. In addition, he matter-of-factly states, sans proof: “Most news consumers—even if they used to be avid book readers—have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books.” In a mere 10 seconds searching on Google I came across a Pew study from last fall that found a notable correlation between higher rates of news/newspaper consumption and the regularly reading of magazines and journals. And there’s this bit of unscientific pseudo-data: “I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie—not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.” Pity he never met a fella by the name of Thomas Edison, who still holds more patents than anyone alive or dead on the planet, since was known for “devour[ing] science books and… newspapers, magazines, and novels.”

Does the press make mistakes? Of course, and I don’t begrudge Dobelli the right to complain about it when they do. Certainly, the press provided him and us plenty more examples during the past week’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, whether it was the New York Post’s reckless reporting about a “Saudi national” suspect who was merely a victim, or CNN’s farcical performance touting an arrest that never occurred. But he’s presenting us with a false choice when he argues that the news isn’t worth our attention because it “leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated.”

Sussing out the important news will always be a messy, uneven affair for us; that’s part of the bargain of having a free press. Yet, the noisy nature of this daily marketplace of information clearly holds little appeal for Dobelli. “Important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too,” he writes, maybe while wistfully staring out his log cabin window onto Walden Pond. But no modern government or society can subsist solely on a news cycle with such a long gestation period anymore. We depend upon a constant stream of actionable intelligence to help us identify and contextualize today what problems need fixing, what crimes need solving, what laws need changing, and what tragedies need averting tomorrow. Our democracy deserves the chance to heal itself, no doubt—and right now perhaps even more so—but unless we’re willing to get the bad news first, we’re unlikely to ever hear the good news.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Stan Martin
RE: Article in The Nation, “Beltway Media’s Best Kept Budget Secret”

Thank you for an excellent article about the press. Just listen to Rendell and Scarborough piping that Pete Peterson crap.

Richard W Thelin
I just read your article on how Social Security does not add to the deficit.  I get that. Do you think that President Obama knows that, but understands that a lot of Republicans don't, so that he calls for a reduction in the increase in annual benefits to get them to agree to some tax increases (i.e., loophole closing) by letting them think they are reducing the debt? And wouldn't the reduction in the growth of benefits increase the longevity of the Social Security Trust Fund (same money coming in, less money going out)? Going to the chained CPI doesn't really bother me, but perhaps I don't fully understand the implications of doing so. While I wouldn't mind seeing us reduce the debt, and deficit, I don't see that as a be all and end all (it certainly wasn't during the W years). Spending money on infrastructure, which would put people to work doing something that needs to be done, seems like a good idea to me, for example.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

The conception that tax breaks pay for themselves was recently debunked. Read Reed Richardson on another financial myth: that Social Security adds to the deficit.

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